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  • “The Slaves That They Are” and the Slaves That They Might Become: Bondage and Liberty in William Gilmore Simms’s The Yemassee
  • Anthony Dyer Hoefer (bio)

In 1844, in the heat of the North Georgia August, William Gilmore Simms, the US South’s preeminent man of letters, delivered an address titled “Americanism in Literature” to a University of Georgia honor society. The young nation, he told his audience, suffered no shortage of writers, but few of them had distinguished themselves as truly and distinctly American. Instead, these writers simply followed the models of their predecessors and contemporaries from across the Atlantic:

The writers think after European models, draw their stimulus and provocation from European books, fashion themselves to European tastes, and look chiefly to the awards of European criticism. This is to denationalize the American mind. This is to enslave the national heart—to place ourselves at the mercy of the foreigner, and to yield all that is individual, in our character and hope, to the paralyzing influence of his will, and frequently hostile purposes.

(“Americanism” 271, emphasis added)

Continuing this theme, Simms told the crowd: “Europe must cease to taunt us because of our prolonged servility to the imperious genius of the Old World. We must set ourselves free from the tyranny of this genius” (272, emphasis added).

In its diagnosis and indeed its prescription, Simms’s essay has much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more familiar text, “The American Scholar,” originally given as an address to a Phi Beta Kappa meeting at Harvard in August of 1837. However, it is unlikely that the image of enslavement would have the same rhetorical utility for Emerson, speaking to a group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as it did for Simms in the red clay hills of Athens, Georgia, seven years later. The use of an abstract image of enslavement is not unique to this oration; rather, it is a familiar rhetorical trope for southern writers and political figures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, according to Kenneth S. Greenberg’s Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery (1985), and figures prominently in Simms’s 1835 novel, The Yemassee. In these [End Page 115] formulations, slavery and bondage exist in binary opposition to liberty and independence—values that were at the core of the nationalist ideologies that emerged from the American Revolution and were later claimed by Jacksonian Democrats such as Simms. This polarized rhetoric supported a literally and figuratively black and white vision of the nation held by many antebellum southern political leaders. The existence of Native groups, however, complicates this narrative, particularly for Simms. These coterminous binaries—bondage and liberty, black and white—provided an ideological bulwark for the rarified social, political, and financial positions Simms occupied within the plantocracy of the antebellum South. However, Simms’s reach extended beyond the plantations of the Carolina Low Country, and as a member of the literary and artistic movement that would become known as Young America, he was a key player in the project to construct a national literary and artistic culture that would rival that of any European nation. The writers of this movement found inspiration in the country’s history and landscape—themes inexorably connected with a third racial group, Native Americans.

The Yemassee might be seen as an attempt to write a national narrative and resolve these contradictions, to imagine a story that simultaneously celebrates Native Americans, fulfills Simms’s nationalistic aims, and bolsters the dominant racial order. Briefly, The Yemassee is Simms’s reimagination of the historical conflicts between British colonialists, Native Americans, and Spanish forces in South Carolina in the 1720s. Simms presents the story through two intersecting narratives; the first presents the story of the Yemassees and centers on their chief, Sanutee, and the second focuses on the British colonists and their Cavalier leader, Captain Gabriel Harrison (who is ultimately revealed to be Charles Craven, the disguised royal governor of the colony). In a letter to his friend Samuel Henry Dickson (first included in the 1853 edition of the book), Simms describes the novel as an “American romance” or epic: “The natural romance of our country has been my object, and I have...


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